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‘War of the Worlds’ Radio Broadcast Causes Panic, 1938

The New York Times notes that thousands of Americans believed a Halloween eve radio drama by Orson Welles about a Martian invasion.

  • Type
  • Source
    New York Times
  • Date
    October 1938
  • Section
    Front Page
  • Copyright

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On  Halloween eve 1938, a wave of mass hysteria took over thousands of radio listeners. A radio broadcast of a dramatization of H.G. Wells’s 19th-century science fiction novel, “The War of the Worlds,” was so realistic listeners believed interplanetary conflict had started with Martians landing in New Jersey.

Orson Welles, a 23-year-old known at the time for his character “The Shadow,” and the Mercury Theater company produced the radio program. It aired on WABC and the Columbia Broadcasting System’s coast-to-coast network from 8 to 9 p.m. on Oct. 30 with an audience of millions. The dramatization simulated a regular radio program with breaking “news bulletins.” Actors playing the role of reporters, new anchors and scientists spoke about the invasion and mass destruction. An introduction and additional announcements throughout the program emphasized the broadcast’s fictional nature, all of which were ignored by many listeners.

Families fled their homes, and thousands of people called the police, newspapers and radio stations throughout the United States and Canada seeking protective measures.

Elsewhere on the front page, the Times reports that 8,000 to 12,000 Polish Jews deported from Germany have found refuge in Poland. The Jews had been massed at frontier stations along the border for 26 hours after being ousted by Germany. The story says the refugees will be allowed to go to relatives’ homes in Poland or to special camps maintained by the Joint Distribution Committee. “Their terrible ordeal is nearing an end,” the story notes.


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